Starting from the early twentieth century, writers and poets had to break with the past literary tradition and respond to the reality of rapid changes and modernization. In such a way, they had to experiment and find new forms and ideas, which resulted in the emergence of various Modernist movements, such as Cubism, Imagism, and Pragmatism, among others (“A Brief Guide to Modernism”). The poets reinvented the old forms, added their unusual perspective on things, utilized revolutionary structures and compositions, and turned to original sources for inspiration, especially Chinese and Japanese poetry. The current paper analyzes these trends and compares five American poets belonging to the Modernist era. Additionally, on the example of their poems, the essay observes the features of the Japanese haiku and allusions to the Freudian concepts.
“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” by Robert Frost
In accordance with the framework of the modernist thought, there is no end to oppositions and contrasts in Frost’s poem; it is made of contradicting feelings and thoughts. The wood itself seems to the narrator full of antagonistic sensations; it is the arena for the fight between the good and evil, pleasant and scary. At first sight, it seems attractive and beautiful, with the clean virgin snow alluring with its white beauty. The world “of easy wind and downy flake” (Frost 1237) draws the pictures of peace and quiet, which are mellow and soft to touch. All these characteristics make the reader feel enchanted and seduced by the mighty, wild, and majestic world of nature represented by the image of the woods. However, like everything grand and powerful, the woods contain frightening danger; they are deep and dark, and a feeble human being can easily die among their freezing snow and cold beauty. In such a way, the consciousness of the narrator is fighting against the subconscious desire to stay forever with the fatal charm of the snowy woods.
Another symbol with a threatening meaning is the frozen lake, which is also dark and scary due to its unpredictable depth. Further, the story itself happens on “the darkest evening of the year” (Frost 1237), which is, on the one hand, simply the indication that it is a winter evening. On the other hand, it can be interpreted as another allusion to the Freudian theory of the dark layer of the human psyche that contains evil, vicious, and destructive desires, even those of suicide. Like in other Modernist works, there are images in Frost’s poem that are conveyed through an appeal to the senses, namely, hearing (“the only other sound’s the sweep . . .”), vision (adjectives like lovely, dark, deep, frozen, which draw the picture of the woods and lake), and mental processes. In such a way, both alive characters, the narrator and the horse, are described as thinking and knowing – “I think I know,” “my little horse must think it queer” (Frost 1237).
The structure of the poem is not exactly haiku, but its iambic tetrameter and identically structured stanzas sound straightforward and direct. Its simplicity, combined with the expressiveness and intensity of the form, makes the general sounding of the verse similar to the Japanese haiku. Besides, the description of winter makes it close to the traditions of the Orient genre. The nature-related theme of the whole work by Frost alludes to the central philosophical idea of the haiku poetry. Specifically, it renders nature and its majestic world (represented by the woods and lake in the poem) to be much more powerful than the human world (the village) and, along with that, full of unperceivable meanings and significance. Finally, bright, colorful images, simple but important, usually two in one verse, which are characteristic of the haiku, are found in Frost’s creation.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” by Wallace Stevens
Of all the authors analyzed in this paper, Stevens wrote in the manner most similar to the Japanese haiku. The brevity and directness of the structure comprising short stanzas and lines of 5 to 6 syllables remind one of the Orient verses. The melody of the poem sounds like the haiku poetry. Another similarity is in that the whole work is built around the most fundamental natural images, including the blackbird itself, which is the central character, mountains, river, snow, and tree. Nature is objectively showed by the author in such a way that it prompts the absurdity of the human centeredness on the own self and its subjectivity. Further, Stevens tries to make the process of thinking and perceiving as clear as possible, leading to enlightenment, the idea of which is directly taken from the Oriental philosophy.
Like Frost in his Pragmatism poetry, Stevens directly refers to the mental processes; he tries to convey to the reader the exact way in which the process of perceiving things and objects occurs. Moreover, every stanza concentrates on a new, specific angle of viewing the surrounding reality that is symbolized here by the bird. In the tradition of the haiku, nature dominates and symbolizes everything in the poem by Stevens. Each stanza introduces a special way of the human thinking, but every time it is embodied in the bird. In the first stanza, for instance, the moving eye of the blackbird signifies the intellect capable of observing things and objects. The next stanza shows a direct simile of the human mind with the tree “in which there are three blackbirds” (Stevens 1260) symbolizing, probably, the id, the ego, and the superego by Freud. It should be noted that such unexpected images and concepts are characteristic of the Modernist poetry.
“The Young Housewife” by William Carols Williams
Williams, another representative of the Modernist poetry, one of the founders of Imagism, also applies the images of the natural world to convey particular ideas related to the human life. The central figure in the given poem is the comparison of the married woman to “a fallen leaf,” “dried leaves.” At first glance, it may seem that the poet feels scornful and skeptical of the woman, her miserable social status (obviously, neglected wife), and not very pure moral development. The latter conclusion can be drawn from the hints concerning her sexuality directed at the strangers; her moving about “in negligee,” “uncorseted,” with “stray ends of hair” that show her willful lust and confusion not only in appearance but, perhaps, in mind, as well. Moreover, the fact that she “comes . . . to call” the man in the street, on her own initiative, adds to the ambiguity of her behavior.
However, Williams’ poem is not so simple in its sense and messages. As a modernist poet, he comes up with complicated impressions and meanings that can be interpreted in a number of ways from different perspectives, just like the process of observing the blackbird in Stevens’ work. Thus, there are keys in the poem pointing to quite a different attitude of the author. The woman is shy (and this feature is not compatible with the previous impression of her), and she is “tucking in” her hair, the gesture that characterizes the inner anxiety or even sorrow and despair. She is enclosed within the walls of the house that belongs to her husband, and the narrator, by comparing the woman to fallen and dried leaves, shows his compassion to her destiny, but not scorn. The author uses vivid auditory (“a crackling sound”) and visual images to make the reader not simply understand the meaning of the poem but perceive it through sensations created by the poet’s mastery.
“Canto ΧLV” by Ezra Pound
Like Frost and Stevens, Pound refers to the dark, and in his poem, it is associated with the money lending business called usura. While in the poem by Frost, the deep woods and frozen lake are the images from nature, which convey the sense of darkness, Pound renders the dark in relation to the human society. In particular, when a starting business has to borrow money for its growth and development, it becomes completely dependent on the mercy of the lender. Finally, a man finds himself without anything, because usura takes all he earns as an interest. As the poet formulates it in the poem, “with usura hath no man a house of good stone” because a decent house with a noble design “might cover their face” (Pound 1309). He uses the basic images, “house” and “face,” to explain the idea in a maximally clear fashion for any person, belonging to any culture. In other words, he refers to the basic archetypes comprising the collective unconscious present in the mind of every representative of the humankind. Thus, the poet also grounds in the Freudian, Adlerian, and Jung’s theories of psychodynamic approaches.
Pound considers money lending the darkest side of the modern society, and his radicalism in this question is even dangerous. However, Pound conveys the idea that in the world where everything that sells well is good and where money is the decisive factor, there is no place for absolute morality, for good and bad. The author shows the adverse impact of usura on spirituality by referring to the image of a church, virgin, and halo, which are the basic concepts representing the God’s faith.
Further, Pound proceeds to describe the negative effects of usura on the human life. Specifically, he notices that this “sin against nature” makes people have bread (which is the fundamental symbol of life and the major product for humans) “of stale rags” and “dry as paper” (Pound 1309). Next, the author reminds of the confused order of all things and creatures of the world where neither people of different professions nor even plants and animals have normal lives. The upside down and completely upset state of things when stone-cutter has no stone, “weaver is kept from his loom” (Pound 1309), and sheep with wool do not bring profit anymore, reminds a sort of confusion that one meets in the works of other Modernist poets. For instance, Frost’s poem, analyzed in the current paper, is also filled with the intense sense of confusion that resides in the soul of the main character. The antagonistic forces, such as village (as an embodiment of people) versus woods and obligations (“but I have promises to keep”) versus pleasure, whose symbol is the wood (“the woods are lovely”), struggle inside, torturing the traveler (Frost 1237).
Continuing the harsh criticism, which looks more like cursing, Pound asserts that great geniuses can only be cherished in the world without usura. In culmination, the rage of the poet turns to the highest degree of frenzy, and he alludes to the most powerful archetypical images and violence that were inflicted on them by usura (a bride, a bridegroom, a child in the womb, and a young man). In the final lines, the poet ends with two repulsive and frightening images of “whores” and “corpses” (Pound 1310). As has been mentioned, his infuriated feelings seem to exceed the norm and become somewhat frightening and comprising danger as extremeness of the views does little good to anyone.
It should be noted that Pound built his work on the traditions of the Japanese haiku whose brevity and simplicity, combined with vividness and strength of expression, come to the reader’s perception at the first lines and continue up to the end. The images are vivid and simple, thus having more power of influencing the imagination of those reading the work. For instance, to denote the whole spheres of the human life, Pound uses the most direct symbols, like “a house of good stone” (denoting home and its prosperity), church (the spiritual domain), bread (the physical need for food), and so on (1309).
“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes
In the spirit of the Modernist love for nature and reverend feelings caused by its power and might, Hughes utilizes the images of four great rivers. Specifically, the Euphrates, the Congo, and the Nile have an outstanding importance in the development of the human civilization. Furthermore, the Mississippi is the reference to the American slavery, the most tragic phenomenon from the past of the Negroes. It was the fact that caused the people with dark skin loads of sufferings, humiliations, and inequalities.
Again, like all the previous authors analyzed in the current essay, the poet uses these marvelous, grand rivers to refer to the dignity and importance of the Black race that was oppressed for a long time. By alluding to the historical meaning of the rivers, “ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins,” Hughes demonstrates that the ancestors of the Negroes are equally significant. They grew together with these rivers and they are connected with them deep in the heart; the soul of the narrator, who is one of them, “has grown deep like the rivers.” One can notice that here, a human being becomes a single whole with the natural world, and this feeling reminds of the impression produced by Stevens’ unity with the blackbird. The structure of Hughes’ poem is also rhythmic and musical, with repetitions and anaphora at the beginning of the lines. In general, the poem influences the reader’s mind, thoughts, feelings, and emotions.
Largely, analyzed poems present a bright example of innovative techniques, unusual perspectives, and love for the extraordinary, which are characteristic of the Modernist framework. All of the poets demonstrate love and respect for the natural forces, whose might and power are simultaneously attractive, seductive, and frightening. The latter peculiarity, as well as several other features, is readily borrowed from the Orient philosophy and poetry, particularly, the Japanese haiku. Overall, along with many similarities, every poet discussed in the essay has a unique style and an original solution of the form and content of his creation.